You’ll burn out fast.
The bottom line will matter more than you.
It’s too competitive to advance.
It will be hard to keep up.
Good luck finding fair compensation.
Be prepared to sacrifice your social life.
I started hearing about the “toxic environment” of agency work right from my first semester in college. It continued to weave in and out of my courses until my final days before graduation. Sometimes said outright, other times lightly nuanced, the root of it all was one heavy piece of advice: working at a public relations agency is unsustainable.
Looking back, I really can’t blame my professors for their biases. The agency life they described does, in fact, exist, and a lot of them had experienced it firsthand. In fact, from countless conversations I’ve had with colleagues over the years, having professors with this perspective seems to be a universal experience for public relations and communications students across the country.
I’ve found my place in agency life, and I love it. But, if not for the positive encouragement of one professor – or my persistent stubbornness as a young adult – I could have easily been persuaded to take another route. So, as I enter my fourth year in the field and begin my journey with Stanton Communications, I find myself reflecting more and more upon the world of public relations agencies: the positives, the negatives, and everything in between.
Here are some of my humble opinions.
Agency work can be the best education in communications.
Over the past four years, I’ve worked in over 20 industries, participating in strategy, content creation, media relations, and other workflows. The variety of clients, deliverables, and responsibilities that come with working at an agency can provide invaluable experience in the communications field, whether your future is at an agency or elsewhere.
Good lessons can come from positive experiences.
I think we’ve all been guilty of taking a bad experience – a far too heavy workload, a lack of manager support, an uncomfortable position imposed – and vocalizing it as a good learning experience. While such situations can arise even at the best of agencies, it’s important not to accept this as the normal route to advancement. Positive experiences, both individual and team wins, can provide just as much insight for young professionals.
High-quality work comes from a balanced mind.
The “first one in the door, last one out the door” mentality continues to persist at many agencies. This toxic competitiveness only leads to overworked, stressed employees, with limited work-life balance.
Rather than a sprint or a marathon, PR work should be a carefully crafted relay race: evenly distributed work that draws upon the strengths of the individual for the benefit of the whole. By focusing on the well-being of each employee (inside and outside of the office), each of them can in turn employ maximum creativity and productivity in the task assigned, rather than just trying to churn more of the endless work than their peers next to them.
Stop feeding the burnout beast.
I appreciate the honesty and transparency my professors brought to the table in those lessons. But, in our current state, an agency’s toxic work environment is criticized and ridiculed but ultimately accepted as the norm. And, if we continue to perpetuate the narrative of agency life being unsustainable, it will continue to be a reality. Rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water, we need to start identifying such agencies as a problem piece of the whole.
Company culture is everything.
All of these thoughts I’ve shared boil down to this one main point.
As communicators, we know how important company culture is to the public perception of an organization. This is true for agencies as well. We can’t resort to a document of buzzwords and cliché phrases. Culture is not a tactic, it’s a way of life, and whatever you write down should be dogma. And, if an agency values and supports its employees, it will help cultivate highly talented professionals who may just choose to stick around.